A Dozen Dives: Arkie's Grill

12 places we’re drawn to in spite of ourselves. And sometimes in spite of themselves.
Day 2: Arkie’s Grill
4827 E. Cesar Chavez St. 385-2986, no website.
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 04.10.12
UPDATED JULY 2012: A reader called to say he stopped by for lunch on 07.13.12 and that Arkie's was closed. "Locked up tight; looked like it had been for weeks. What a shame." Agreed.
In the almost 65 years since Arkie’s opened, Austin has gone from a state capital surrounded by industry and agriculture to the creative-class and tech magnet it is now. But not everywhere, and especially not this far east on Cesar Chavez, where Arkie’s sits across the road from a machine shop, a kind of lunchroom for the auto shops and equipment yards on either side.
The one-off guys in denim workshirts take the red swivel stools along the worn formica front counter , but the tables in back are where the racket’s coming from, where if you looked at the oval patches you could call people by their first names. The owner waves one man back the minute he walks in. All of them get the kind of attention and care that self-absorbed bistro staffs should be required to watch as training videos.
Arkie’s almost came to an end in February, after a stretch of months when owner Steve Jones leased the operation to someone else. Most of the staff had been let go, the cupboards were mostly bare and the state had come looking for its sales-tax cut when Jones stepped back in, rehired most of the crew and set out to put everything back the way it was. On the outside six weeks later, it’s like nothing has changed. But behind the scenes, Arkie’s had almost been swallowed up.
What you’re eating: If it’s Tuesday, this must be chicken and dumplings ($7.99). On a menu already full of diner royalty — liver and onions, fried chicken, meatloaf — it’s the king of the daily specials, now available Mondays and Wednesdays, too. Yellow salt-and-paper chicken gravy swallows up dumplings as firm as gnocchi, soft and starchy as pasta but with more substance. They have to work harder, because Arkie’s is only open through lunch. They’re rolled out and cut by hand, so each one has a personality, all of them as comfortable as the waitstaff in white T-shirts and blue jeans, the same women who’ve made me feel welcome here in the past, even though I’m a stranger compared to most of the room, where back-pocket combs and wallet chains and jean rivets have worn holes in the red vinyl booths over the years.
The chicken’s a mix of well-cooked hand-pulled white and dark meat, a plate that will appeal to both sides of the Thanksgiving brain in its tug-of-war over the Rockwell sheen of breast meat versus the muscular flavor of thighs and legs. Put that way, this plate’s almost sexy, isn’t it? You get three vegetables that change from day to day. Turnip greens are the earthier half-sisters of collards, Pinto beans play it straight. What makes today’s  potatoes scalloped I couldn’t tell you, unless scalloped is the potato’s word for a suntan. Come by on Thursdays and you can get sweet coleslaw with raisins, You can’t get chicken and dumplings on a Thursday, but that’s when turkey-and-dressing kicks in. These are the tradeoffs we make in life. When they ask if you want rolls or cornbread sticks, get both.
What you’re drinking: Hot black diner coffee, in whatever mug’s handy. One day it might say “Aloha!.” Today, it’s stenciled purple grapes. No whining.
Other options: Besides the daily specials of fried chicken and catfish, liver, beef tips and meatloaf for $7.99 every weekday, Arkie’s fields a roster of burgers, fries, enchiladas and tacos, plus a full breakfast menu with chicken-fried steak and eggs, pancakes, breakfast tacos and biscuits and gravy. You’ll have to look hard to find much of anything over $7.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)